That’s Using Your Brain!

My younger daughter is very interested in both medicine and robotics.  So she and I were both very interested in a segment on the PBS NewsHour a few weeks ago about advances being made at Johns Hopkins University in developing a new generation in prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by the user’s mind.

Here is the PBS segment on the new prosthetic arm:

My daughter particularly enjoyed thinking about all of the technology that would be required to make a limb work like a live arm, simulating all of the many joints and range of movement that we have in our arms and hands.  I loved the idea of picking up the electrical impulses in nerves and using them to control the arm.  It is not telepathy, but it seems to be telepathy’s equivalent.

Then, today I read about work being done by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center extending the idea.  In that work, probes are implanted directly into the brain of a paralyzed person to pick up the signals needed to control a limb, rather than the Johns Hopkins approach of picking up a signal from nerves in the muscles that remain.  A woman in the DARPA study was so successful controlling one prosthetic arm that they had her control two arms at the same time – and she succeeded.

If that were not incredible enough, they then took the computer that translated her brain signals into to the controls for the prosthetic limbs and instead connected it to flight controls for a flight simulator.  The woman, who is not a pilot and has never flown a plane, was able to fly a simulated F-35 jet fighter by simply thinking about what she wanted to jet to do!  Here is a link to an article on this work:  [Washington Post Article].

The ramifications of this breakthrough are mind-boggling.  Not only might quadriplegics recover the opportunity to have a more independent life, but everyone might one day be able to interact with the many machines we use in our day-to-day lives (think cars, computers, mobile phones, etc.) using thought rather than our hands, feet, and spoken words.

I have many times thought about how wonderful it has been to live in the era in which I live – in which I have been able to see mankind leave the face of the earth and walk on the moon, development of microprocessors and their application in almost every area of daily life, the end of diseases like polio and smallpox, breakthroughs in our understanding of the basic processes at work in our bodies, our world, and the universe, and more.  Now, I hope to live long enough to see what my daughters’ generation will accomplish as they continue the inevitable process of expanding knowledge and applying what they learn.

What a time to be alive!


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